Big Data: York Whatever 2021 Preview

Introducing the iYork, innovation distilled into a soccer club, this year at E3.

There was something about York’s new branding that felt a bit like a new iYork. Sure, it probably has some nice quality-of-life features, the problem with exploding batteries has been fixed, and it’s got a bigger screen. It will, you are promised, open amazing new horizons—when it arrives. But your Sebastian Gutierrez is stuck in a box on a container ship and your William Wallace is waiting on a chip that’s only made in Taiwan, and by the time you actually get your new team, it’s going to be 2022 and everyone, including you, will have moved on to an even newer, even snazzier gizmo.

The funniest thing is that, in branding terms, York9 was actually pretty effective. It was, if nothing else, distinctive. Memorable. They had reasonably great inaugural kits and a bizarre alien motif. It was corky but in technical branding terms, it was really quite good at catching your eye.

York doesn’t really need a new logo or slicker presentation, though. It needs a soccer team, and a reason to watch said soccer team. Most of the rest is as much marketing these days: hopeful the superficial sales zazz will paper over the lack of any real substance, or any real value proposition.

The new logo is bland, but it doesn’t really matter. York’s problems have been on the field.

Or rather, it was the field itself. York Lions Stadium has been refurbished and, crucially, widened. The club will get another shot at a home opener without a lightning delay. The club has finally moved on from trying to have five captains.1Seriously, weird stuff like that hinders community outreach, especially in a soccer-savvy area like York or Vaughan. You want the captain to be a player kids want to come see–a Kyle Bekker or a Peter Schaale. This is progress.

But will anyone come? Does anyone care? Is talking about community just a buzzword when your President & GM, who is publicly hawking all this fizzle, isn’t even based in Canada?

We are told, repeatedly, that York has a plan, data-driven to the nine stripes, that everything is going to be just perfect as long as we trust the guy in charge who’s hip with the times, loves Scottish football (don’t we all right now?), and has great beard hygiene. It’s all risky without being unsafe, big without being brave, and everything the club has done this winter that matters has gone splat.

Key Arrivals

Even before having trouble getting almost all their big signings into the country, I was a bit confuddled as to what York were doing. It would really be more appropriate to do the departures section first, because the core of the team is very much gone, as are most of those signed to replace them.

There were early additions that suggested York wanted to bolster the backline. Dom Zator and Chrisno N’sa made intra-league moves to Toronto, in N’sa’s case, reuniting with his brother Félix, which is a nice story. Those moves made some sense, especially given Luca Gasparotto retired to take up hedge-trimming (yes, really).

York’s defending had never been great through its two years–Nate Ingham was regularly one of the busiest goalkeeper, and I remember Jim Brennan being visibly frustrated with his back four-but-sometimes-three in 2019. I can understand tinkering there and the additions make sense.

The latest crop of South American youngsters, out of big-name academies but without much int he way of professional experience, do not.

First, it’s not like we all thought, in December, that the border was going to suddenly re-open. I’m considerably less sympathetic this year to teams that didn’t plan around that in their signings. It’s a challenge, sure, but why release most of your midfield and rely on visas to replace it?

Even then, York’s record on South Americans is not great. You’ll recall Rodrigo Gattas. You’ll recall last year’s much-hyped star Gabriel Vasconcelos. Here’s what I wrote last year: sound familiar?

The league’s most hyped team–coincidentally, I’m sure, underperforming in the league’s biggest media market–has had a bit of a problem getting some of those big-name signings into the country due to Covid-19 border restrictions, which is a pity because some of them (not all of them) look promising.

A cynic might say last year’s Big Thing was a bit bullshit.

Shopping in Brazil and Argentina doesn’t make sense for CanPL teams, and even the smaller countries are scouted pretty heavily. Any player with real potential in an Argentinian or Brazilian academy gets gobbled up either by a byzantine agency set-up or a European team. At 22 and 23, we’re not getting players with growth potential we can sell on–that’s hopeful thinking driven by buzz, not reality. You can find academy wash-outs with a bit of skill in any county, including Canada.

Now, because Vasconcelos was such a bust in 2020, teenagers like Ijah Halley, Ferrari, and Right got real minutes. Wright scored and Ferrari set a couple up. Jim Brennan rewarded them with more minutes, and they were pretty good if pretty raw. I like this. I like that Brennan will go to Canadian teenagers at the drop of a hat. If that’s the Big Thing, I guess I’ll buy in. Worst that can happen is I lose some Bitcoin.

Key Departures

Of course, the real departures here are Lisandro Cabrera, William Wallace, Sebastian Gutierrez, and Matias Hernandez. Cabrera and Hernandez are out on loan, and York can retain Wallace and Gutierrez off-roster if they can afford to pay them and can convince them to sit around not playing for nine more months.

Any XI you penciled together back in May had those four as a big part of what York were doing, especially in the centre of the park.

They were supposed to replace most of what had been, in my view, one of the best midfields in the league. Chris Mannella, who barely played for York because of injury last summer, is now in Ottawa. So is Ryan Telfer. Joe Di Chiara is now a big piece of Cavalry’s midfield. Manny Aparicio is getting hyped up in Victoria. Morey Doner is now Halifax’s starting right-back.

None of these guys are washing out of the league. York just decided to move on. It does happen, in this sport.

Now it’s over to a bunch of kids, some already in the system and some signed with what feels like a degree of desperation. But it is the middle of a pandemic–out of desperation can come inspiration, or some other catchy slogan you can always use to sell the next Big Thing.

I’m all for second chances, but that’s what Terique Mohamed and Jordan Faria are at this point. Oswaldo Ramirez is kind of a fun story if only because he’s essentially a USPORTs player, just from the Mexican system instead.2Like in Canada, Central American universities do a lot of developmental work, especially outside of the big clubs (many of which actually have links to or history as university teams). I’ve always thought there’s a lot we could learn from that system, especially when it comes to scouting smaller centres, like Chiapas, where Ramirez played. Gerard Lavergne looks mostly like a favour to Atletico Pantoja, who have taken a bunch of York players on loan, but of all of these guys, Lavergne might be the most likely to start given York’s issues in central midfield.

Noah Verhoeven is an interesting addition if he can find some consistency beyond what he showed out west. He, too, is probably on his last chance at this level after catching some eyes way back in the league’s first weeks. Julian Ulbricht is another young international who’s been playing mostly off the bench in the German fourth flight. Ryan Lindsay is a 19-year-old centre-back with only a handful of pro minutes.

These guys are kids. It’s never entirely a bad idea to play the kids, but let’s do them the favour of keeping expectations in check. They don’t deserve to be up on stage with McNab alongside the robotic dog and flying car.

Key Players
Dom Zator, centre-back/right-back

It’s a big season for Zator.

He was a break-out star in Calgary, but he had Tommy Wheeldon Jr.’s system around him and Jonathon Wheeldon, who’s criminally underrated around the league, beside him.

I’m curious to see how the former Whitecaps prospect does outside Calgary. Zator’s one of the CanPLers most likely to get a national team call-up, but he struggled a bit on his loan spell this winter and will be adapting to a new group in York, a group in which he’s likely to have to put out a lot of fires. If he passes this test, he can definitely handle a murky World Cup Qualifying night in CONCACAF.

Chrisno N’sa, centre-back/right-back

A lot will be expected of Chrisnovic N’sa, too, who broke out last year with Wanderers and is essentially a like-for-like swap with Doner. N’sa can be raw, but his ceiling is high.

N’sa is a player who has improved in this league. He started 2019 as a centre-back and ended it as a d-mid before getting moved to right-back in 2020, where he was much better. It’s not super obvious that he’s better than Morey Doner, but his ceiling might be higher.

I still think he might be better long-term as a centre-back. He has elite speed and strength, and reasonable size and bite. He’s by no means bad going forward, but more about industry than carving out chances himself, and I think if Brennan can get him to figure out where to play his first pass, he’ll slowly become one of the league’s better all-around defenders.

Alvaro Rivero, striker

Rivero is really the only semi-experienced goalscorer on York, and scored their only goal from open play last year.

I think he’ll end up playing a fair bit beside Lowell Wright, and I’m quite curious to see how that looks. Rivero’s movement is very Spanish: he can go direct, but he also does a lot of running into and out of spaces laterally. York struggled to see those runs in 2020–Vasconcelos had a similar problem.

I suspect that’s partly why Manny Aparicio is now several thousand kilometres away, and why York don’t really have an out-and-out playmaker in this new set-up. If they can find Rivero with more direct play, he’s got the technical ability to score some beautiful goals, like the one he put past Pacific last summer.

This goal, which is barely from open play–it’s a long ball off a goal-kick–should both terrify and excite Pacific fans, by the way. Manny Aparicio (!) beats Lukas MacNaughton (!!) to a header, and Meilleur-Giguere watches the ball fly into the top corner. But Rivero’s run is excellent.
Tactics & Positional Depth

Almost everything is riding on improvement from within.

On the bright side, I do think many of the club’s younger players–guys like Ijah Halley, Isaiah Johnston, and even Montreal loanee Cedric Toussaint, on top of Wright and Ferrari–can improve, and likely will this year. Minutes matter.

But York’s track record with young players isn’t that much better than their track record with South American imports. Austin Ricci barely got a look. Neither did Stephen Furlano or Emmanuel Zambazis. Dan Gogarty was let go halfway through 2019. All of those guys were a bit older, and mostly came out of TFC’s system, but York had the chance to be a young team the first go-round and mostly decided not to.

Now we’ve cycled back around, as trends tend to do.

With Petrasso and Diyaeddine Abzi, York do have two high-quality, experienced wide players who can play as either two-way wingers or wingbacks in something like this:

York probably have four of the better fullbacks in CanPL. How you get them on the field together is tricky.

I actually think that’s a pretty strong XI, but you can see the holes in midfield left by the South American exodus pretty clearly.

Petrasso’s been terrific while on loan in England, and York need him to stay healthy if this team is going to be at all competitive. Were he to get hurt, though, you do have Ferrari or Ijah Halley there, so there is depth in the wide positions.

There is something to like about going all-in on the kids. I’d even kind of applaud it (I did for Ottawa last year) but for the scattershot approach–you’ve got some spots where York are asking a lot of teenagers to take a big step up and others, like in defense, where they might not play as much at all.

I’d like to see Isaiah Johnston, briefly a Cape Breton Caper, get more time than he did in 2020. He’s a Patrick Vieira-esque midfielder who can link attack without even looking like he’s trying, and if he, Ferrari, and Wright were to click at the pro level all at once, York might suddenly become a lot more tantalizing, never mind who’s not here.

It’s also possible Brennan could radically shift how the team lines up and plays, or even try something very defensive a la Valour 2020,  but looking at the broad strokes of the youngsters, I actually kind of doubt it. There’s still a lot of skill–it’s just way, way less proven at this level.

Brennan’s used a 3-5-2 before, and I like the idea of Wright as a direct option with Rivero as a second striker. The midfield, however, is still dicey.

I’d kind of like to see York just throw caution to the winds, let the kids run, and lose a fair number of games 4-3. I don’t think that’ll happen, but I do wonder if that might actually be the best thing for the club this year. 4-3 losses are a lot more fun to watch than 1-0 losses. York haven’t been able to train much at all, it’s going to be a long, weird season, and expectations are low. Why not?

Projection: 8th

Generally, if you press the Big Red Button, you want some idea what you’re doing. And generally, you don’t want your plan to be a spin from the Magical Mystery Box that is 21st Club.

Even if the South Americans had made it in, York had gone from one of the most talented teams on paper to a team of unknowns, all off a tiny sample of games in 2020 in which they were almost comically unlucky in front of goal.

Which brings us back to that wonderful data we must never, under any circumstances, be allowed to see. Even with York’s USPORTs picks, coming out of a league that is notoriously bad about even managing to keep basic stats, McNab was talking about their great data, only to then pass on signing either of them, even though playmaker Chris Campoli looked interesting and has experience in League 1 Ontario. The data is just a coat of paint. Everyone can see through it.

The idea of playing Moneyball isn’t that you get to cast Brad Pitt. It’s using technical smarts to find value others might miss. In Canadian soccer, I’d suggest it might actually be finding players who don’t have large amounts of pre-existing data from an academy or existing set-up. It would be finding more Morey Doners in League 1 Ontario, commuting in from hours away just to get a chance to play. York sit on one of the deepest pools of talent in the country, but are instead bringing in 29-year-olds from the Danish semi-pro leagues, Mexican university players, and any South American cut by a big-name club.

Moneyball is seeing that St. Louis FC was about to shut down and snapping up Jérémy Gagon-Laparé or Paris Gee, or bringing Shawn-Claude Lawson back from NISA. Nor can you be a team based on technical smarts and not realize the Canadian border was going to be shut most of this year.

Smart is, in fact, the exact opposite of what York have done, which is chase trends, gizmos, and logos, as if they can sell the club entirely on buzzwords to Toronto soccer fans who have heard it all before. Even then, they’ve not yet been able to stick with any of their identities, or show any commitment to anyone, from the playing staff to the people running the show.

It won’t be fixed with a pitchdeck, slick demo, and marketing-fueled hope that soccer in Canada can work if we just change the CSS.

About Dylan Matthias 178 Articles
Captain of this motley crew. Formerly editor-in-chief at The Dalhousie Gazette, covering university soccer and Halifax news from a student perspective. Once a Vancouverite, always a Haligonian.

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